Saugerties works to clear Esopus of invasive milfoil plant

Lighthouse Drive resident Mark Prinz. (Photo by Christina Coulter)

Thick swathes of Eurasian milfoil, an invasive plant species that robs river ecosystems of oxygen and sunlight, are visible on satellite images of the lower Esopus Creek. Saugerties town and village officials, along with officials in the other 44 states where the plant has become an ecological nuisance, have scratched their heads for nearly a decade over how to efficiently and cost-effectively quell the plant without promoting its spread — any segmentation of the milfoil plant can lead to further growth. 

This year, for the first time, village officials are piloting a strategy to combat the aggressive weed, which they began in August. Meanwhile, creek side neighbors on Esopus Creek Road have begun circulating a petition that has accrued over 100 signatures for the town or village to pursue grant opportunities or find available monies for an aquatic weed harvester in their 2020 budget. They hope to form a committee to facilitate communication about the creek cleanup process with town officials. 

“The oxygen is being destroyed in that creek,” said petition-writer Salvatore Cigliano during the public comment period at a September 4 town board meeting. “I don’t see any carp, and they’re one of the heartiest fish. I don’t see turtles as much as I used to. I don’t see frogs anymore. All of these surveys and nothing’s been done…You don’t see people fishing on the creek anymore, and when you talk about it people say ‘I’m not swimming in there, it’s filthy.’ It’s a maintenance problem, it’s like cutting your grass. This milfoil starts germinating in April — by June, you have a crop.”

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Cigliano said that he had “about 15 guys” that would be willing to maintain and operate the machine. He has been advocating on the creek’s behalf, he said, for several years and said that he is “tired of studies” and wants to see action take place: “The creek can come back — we just have to do something, not just nothing like they’re been doing for the past ten years.”

The town began removing the milfoil from the village beach area only this year. 

For nearly three weeks using an aquatic weed harvester that rolls the plant cleanly onto a conveyor belt and out of the water, Zdenek Ulman of Croton-on-Hudson based company Marine Diving Service has pulled roughly four cubic yards a day of the plant out of the Esopus. The milfoil, which can be used as a potent fertilizer, is then loaded onto a Department of Public Works Vehicle and dropped off at a storage facility on North Street. Ulman is contracted to remove about five acres of milfoil and water chestnut, another invasive floating weed, from the beach area for $5,300. In 2020, the village intends to contract further weed-removal services from Ulman; Town Supervisor Fred Costello expressed interest in using his services for the expanse of the creek that runs through the town, as well. Ulman had several recommendations for village officials for how to proceed with the effort next year. 

“The best way to approach it, as far as spending the time and money and the best results is introduce a boat channel for the traffic,” suggested Ulman. Motor boat traffic has been discouraged for some time on the creek in favor of kayakers. He said that boat propellers cut through milfoil, breaking it up and making it easier for him to remove. “If there is a boat channel where all the speed boats would go through and the fragmentation would happen, we do stand a chance to clean that area.”

Ulman said that cleaning the entire creek in Saugerties would be costly because of how widespread the plant has become. He also warned that the mass of water chestnut in a still bay area near Saugerties Creek was moving very close to the channel of moving water, and expressed worry that it would spread down the creek. Ulman is also contracted to harvest some of the water chestnut. He also noted that his machine could only harvest plants in water deeper than four feet.

The village has sought out a viable solution for the problem, according to Mayor Bill Murphy, for nearly a decade. The town has made numerous attempts to borrow the town of Esopus’ harvesting machine, all of which have been denied. Murphy said that, because Esopus has a new supervisor, he is hopeful that this will change. Murphy said that the village of Saugerties had supported the town’s grant application for the machine hoping that they would “actually have the ability to use it.” Murphy noted that the use of an herbicide, which he said had proved successful in the town of Harriman, had been considered. “The idea of putting chemicals in the water scares me, and it would scare many residents,” he said.

This sentiment was echoed at the September 4 town board meeting, when the mere mention of a chemical treatment elicited gasps and cries of “no!” from creek neighbors in attendance. 

“When I looked at harvesters, and to buy a harvester to insure, store and train people to run it because it’s not something just anyone can run, you’re talking $100,000,” said Murphy. For the price of a harvester I can probably get 15 years of maintenance. The economical decision to try to keep up with it is to hire this local service.” 

According to Jared Buono, the executive director of the Ulster County branch of Cornell Cooperative, the organization has been brainstorming methods of keeping the plant under control with the town and the village for a number of years. Among alternate solutions are introducing sterile grass carp, a fish that eats the plant, into the waterway — however, this is a technique typically reserved for lakes and ponds, because “you can never tell if they’re actually sterile.” A similar method using a an insect called a “milfoil weevil” is being experimented with elsewhere in the country, and a method of lowering the water level temporarily in water channels and dehydrating the root crown of the plant has been explored. In 2011, Buono said, town officials, members of the DEC and stakeholders met to discuss possible options.

“I think it’s a much more complicated issue than people give it credit for, and I think everyone is trying to find a solution that won’t exacerbate the issue,” he said. “People are taking their time to figure it out.”

Neighbors on the creek living on Lighthouse Drive said that Ulman charges about $1200 per home to remove the plant from the area in front of their homes and their bulkheads — some homeowners, in an effort to eradicate the easily-spread plant more efficiently, have donated money so that residents who don’t pay the fee still have their plants removed. 

Cigliano, in attendance at the village board meeting, said that he was “happy something was being done,” however, he will continue to circulate his petition. He said that he would “still like [the town or village to acquire] a harvester,” and that if every neighbor doesn’t pay for private weed removal, the plant will continue to proliferate. Cigliano wants to see Saugerties tackle the weed on the length of the creek. 

“I don’t think it makes a difference who gets this done,” he said. “If they can get it done another way that’s great. My objective is to get the creek clean and healthy again. whoever can do that, I’m with them…I’m going to keep it going just so we have a group of people that know what’s happening,” said Cigliano. “This isn’t a fight, this is something that we work on together.” 

Amassed signatures could also be used to show community interest in the cause in the grant application process. Cigliano will set up camp at the Village Beach Saturday, September 21 from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.; those who would like to sign his petition, or to help amass more signatures toward the cause, can email rosemary.cigliano@gmail.com.

“I think it’s great that people want to see us fix the problem, you know,” said Murphy of the petition. “Nature’s nature. It’s a tough thing to control, but I’m happy with what we did this year. I’m open to suggestions from anyone, but be willing to help. Don’t just make suggestions. It’s something that the town, village, residents and Esopus Creek Conservancy have to work together on.”

There are 4 comments

  1. Erick

    Can you get an “online petition” for people to sign. More signatures = more notice. Additionally, has anyone mentioned where all the grant money went (millions) that was supposed to fix everyone’s bulk-heads/prevent further erosion…perhaps they can use some of it for this cause.

    Feel a money trail is in order.
    EBP – a concerned tax payer.

  2. Zdenek Ulman

    The machine we are using is a very complex piece of equipment and requires considerable time to learn it and get the good feel of it usually is one maybe two operators per machine it is very sensitive equipment. Requires lot of care before and after every single operation.
    we will be back in town on October 15th to removing more milfoil we are pleased to work with the town to help to restore the creek.

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